A sparse but appreciative crowd greet entertaining support band Tin Spirits on the final night of this six-date UK tour, but thankfully swell to a few hundred by the time John Lees’ version of Barclay James Harvest drift hesitatingly into Nova Lepidoptera.
A cluttered stage mostly occupied by Jez Smith’s elaborate keyboard set-up and Kev Whitehead’s drum kit push Lees over to stage right, partially hidden by a large music stand that makes it impossible to see his guitar playing. However, his voice rings out loud and clear, and the playing is sharp and precise as he trades humorous banter with bassist Craig Fletcher, who himself is battling a sore throat. He still sings well, while the pair continue an amusing gig-long argument about whether the band are prog or folk rock.
“I wrote this song when I was very young, expecting things to get better… they didn’t!” deadpans Lees as an introduction to Summer Soldier, before the band hit their stride with a chunky Child Of The Universe. That’s followed by She Said and Galadriel. “See, I told you we were folk rock!” says Lees triumphantly as he puts down his flute. “Bah, hey nonny nonsense!” retorts Fletcher.
On Leave is a heartfelt tribute to dearly departed keyboard player Woolly Wolstenholme, while In My Life turns out to be one of the highlights, along with North, the melancholy title track from the quartet’s most recent album.
The upbeat Crazy City injects a bit of urgency into an otherwise quite sedate set, but when someone in the audience shouts out the title of a Les Holroyd song, Lees explains patiently why they don’t play any of his tracks. “Even though he plays some of mine!” he adds quickly, before dipping into the classic Mocking Bird.
The set ends with the epic coupling of The Poet and After The Day. It’s 15 minutes of atmospheric pomp that gives all four musicians a spot in the limelight.
Fletcher and Smith don acoustic guitars for the encore of Hymn that marries both the older and newer versions, a fitting end to a night that demonstrates just why classic artists should continue to play for as long as there’s a demand.